Monday, December 1st, 2008
He was a tall, imposing figure, ripped straight from the pages of the Bible, with his long grey beard and uncompromising faith. But there was something missing from the picture.
It was 1992, the first intifada was beginning to sputter and Oslo was becoming a household name not as a city but as a process. My wife and I were on an Israel tour with a group we knew was right-wing, but the extent of their politics didn’t fully dawn on us until we met our guide, Yigal, a tall bearded settler with a large knitted skull cap. From his speeches it soon became clear the goal of the organization, which heavily subsidized the trip, was to lure more settlers from America to the west bank.
On the day we were to visit Hebron — that hotbed Jewish outpost of some 400 surrounded by tens of thousands of Palestinians, our first foray from Israel into the territories — I looked around the bus for an armed guard, and found none. And Yigal himself was missing a standard settler accessory — an automatic rifle dangling from the shoulder. When I asked if he was perhaps carrying a concealed weapon, he smiled and said he had something better, then tapped his shirt pocket, which contained a book of psalms.
At the risk of sounding faithless, I suggested we stop by his place and pick up some firearms, just in case the psalms didn’t do the trick. It was the first and only time I have ever heard someone suggest that you could pray away terrorists.
That story comes to mind now as Chabad Lubavitch, the worldwide Jewish outreach movement, faces its most serious crisis since the passing of the Lubavitcher rebbe, who directed his thousands of followers to spread out to the far corners of the earth in search of Jews in need of spiritual and religious renewal, be they travelers or members of long-forgotten communities. This item from an indian newspaper, citing unnamed Israeli sources, suggests that the Chabadniks in Mumbai were warned to beef up security at their center but instead placed their faith entirely in divine protection, which is not only unwise but void of grounding in Jewish teaching. There are numerous references in the Talmud to the need to protect oneself from malicious or accidental harm.
There is exactly zero chance that movement will be even slightly deterred in that mission after this tragedy. On Friday, Rabbi Yehuda Kirnsky, former personal secretary of the Rebbe and a high-ranking Lubavitch official, counseled his emissaries in thousands of outposts in 72 foreign countries to stay strong and keep the faith. ”You know how to face adversity and challenges,” he said. ” Keep strong and continue to forge ahead with courage and fortitude in the service of our people and mankind to make this a better place to live for all.”
Privately, at least, I hope he is also telling them to consult with local and international law enforcement, consider hiring guards and installing metal detectors where appropriate and do whatever it takes to make sure Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife, Rivka and the others slaughtered in Mumbai are the last to die “al kiddush Hashem”, in sanctification of God’s name at the hands of terrorists.
It’s hard to believe anyone truly thinks that piety and righteousness are protection enough from harm in a post-Holocaust, post-9/11 world. Even natural disasters tell us otherwise every day. But one side effect of devoutly religious life may be that adherents sometimes place too much faith in their own destiny, to the point of insufficiently protecting themselves.
In 2005, Israeli researchers studied 1,000 pedestrians at two busy junctions, one in the heavily religious town of Bnei Brak and the other in secular Ramat Gan. They found that the ultra-Orthodox were three times more likely to dangerously jaywalk as their secular counterparts. Researcher Tova Rosenbloom hypothesized that religious people may take more risks because they have less fear of death.
Without speaking to the jaywalkers its impossible to know if that lack of fear is because they expect divine protection or because they simply believe that if they were to be run down it is God’s will and recognition that they have completed their mission on earth. In any case, a traffic safety primer in yeshivas is called for.
During World War II, the famous song “Praise The Lord and Pass the Ammunition” ((otsensibly based on a Pearl Harbor story) told of a chaplain who decides its time to put down his Bible and pick up a machine gun, recognizing that there is a time for faith and prayer and a time to take your fate into your own hands. My tour guide purported to be unwilling to do that. But considering that the settler movement generally makes the NRA look weak on gun ownership, I suspect his motivation was practical rather than ideological, trying to reassure and inspire potential settlers with his bravado. Maybe he even had a gun in an ankle holster.
Chabad emissaries now face a similar dilemma: How to provide a warm and welcoming atmosphere that attracts drop-ins for services and Shabbat meals while maintaining a shield against the plague of murder that is modern day terrorism. Posting armed guards may well take a toll on participation in Chabad programs.
But there is no choice. Like any other organization, Chabad must treat protecting its employees and program participants as its foremost priority. We hope and pray that God will shield these institutions from further harm. But we know the best protection going forward is continued acts of kindness, piety and prayer — together with the most aggressive, state-of-the art security measures money can buy.